I was never into 24 when it was on. I’d already drawn my conclusion about the torture-porn ticking-time-bomb fantasy so I felt no ambiguity about the show’s main emotional draw.
My starting point is that if our hero has a terrorist in custody and believes that the prisoner has information that is needed to save lives, then the hero should know the state of the art of interrogation and act accordingly. As in: don’t give into the terrorist’s fantasy about being martyred through abuse. And if you go off-book and abuse a prisoner, don’t whine about how the politically-correct justice system won’t allow you to be a properly unaccountable psychopath. In a real-world ticking-time-bomb scenario (has this ever happened, in the entire history of counter-terrorism?), I’m sure the judge will be understanding. Own up to your mistake for the sake of civilization. It’s not like you’re going to be tortured or abused during your probation.
Homeland isn’t about torture, though. It isn’t about terrorism or the power of the aristocrats who treat the State like the family business. Homeland’s thriller context is a simple cloak of fantasy around the relationship between an organically nutty single person and a horribly abused and damaged married person. The show owes its success as much to that dynamic as it does to the cloak and dagger. The fact that the show’s context is stuck in 2005 adds to the draperie of delusion.
It’s important to note that the show is not a delusion playing out in Carrie’s manic brain. Not quite, anyway. That would be too obviously indulgent. In that scenario, Saul Berenson is Carrie’s shrink, (really, Carrie’s shrink is her sister? That fails the delusional smell test on so many levels), the CIA is Carrie’s occasional sanitarium and is also Berenson’s main place of employment. Brody is the poor bastard with severe PTSD and post-concussion syndrome who Carrie is obsessed with and who breezed through Berenson’s care recently (and who Carrie met in group). Looked at cynically, this framework of Carrie’s self-delusion works as a realistic context but doesn’t really have the kind of punch needed to bring in ratings. So that’s not what the show is about.
In the actual show, everyone is deluded, except maybe Brody’s daughter. Not only is Carrie a real (ex-)CIA agent who keeps working cloak-and-dagger jobs, but all kinds of other unlikely things happen as well, including a young and vigorous Dick Cheney who never fell out of the public’s willful suspension of disbelief. The unreality that cloaks all these characters is a major part of the genius of the show. People fall all over themselves to cite the delusional facts of the show in their commentaries, but the real indulgence is watching all the character’s delusions simultaneously instantiated as reality. Also hot, crazy people get it on and don’t quite get away with it.
So maybe I should give 24 another chance. If it’s about something else—the story of a guy who slowly finds himself becoming an violently abusive dad who alienates himself from society and loses himself in work, but not really, so the guy’s guilt doesn’t have to be real—that might actually be interesting.